When the pandemic hit, Dr. Seema Yasmin was ideally positioned to understand and explain the many vaccine conspiracy theories that started to spread. A “disease detective" and journalist, she’s the author of Viral BS: Medical Myths and Why We Fall for Them (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021) a look at the why behind the spread of misinformation. Today, she has a new book out: this one for young readers. What the Fact? is an informative and encouraging primer on viral misinformation and disinformation, providing tools that challenge readers to look critically at the media they consume and interrogate their own biases. The book centers on up-to-the minute examples including Covid conspiracies, the viral spread of hate, and current events that are filtered through the lens of social media. We asked Yasmin to tell us more about tapping into her career in journalism for her new book.
Can you talk a bit about your background?
I started my career as a physician in the U.K., then moved to the U.S. to work as an intelligence officer or “disease detective” for the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service—that’s the job portrayed by Kate Winslet in the movie Contagion. You’re sent to different places to investigate epidemics. It was an exciting job. But infections that I thought we’d put to bed were resurging around the world. Whooping cough, measles, and mumps became the bane of my life. That’s when I really confronted information contagion. As public health doctors, vaccines were holy to us. But there was a vocal minority of people who were not vaccinating, and their storytelling was much more potent and powerful than our fact-based storytelling. Diseases weren’t the only things spreading—rumors, hoaxes, and myths about diseases... and me were also spreading. I realized if we didn’t get ahold of misinformation, we’d fail and, in fact, we were failing.
What motivated you to write this book, specifically for the age group you targeted?
I was motivated by bewilderment. We’re all concerned that “fake news” is one of the most pressing problems of our age, yet we haven’t developed a tool kit to support anyone—especially young people—as they navigate this murky world of misinformation and disinformation.
The advice they’re getting is often, “Don’t believe what you read,” “Don’t trust the press,” “Be skeptical of everything.” But by telling them that, we’re putting them in a position of helplessness and hopelessness. We’re not empowering them with information and knowledge that can make them savvy consumers. They are so able and ready to engage in these topics. These conversations can start really early. You can have the most profound conversations about right and wrong and breaking rules with five-year-olds. I joke that my next book about critical thinking is going to be a board book for one-year-olds.
I’ve been studying the spread of false information for about a decade and my research will often uncover things that are quite depressing. But I don’t want to be despondent. I really do have faith in humanity.
How did you decide what to include in the book?
I tried to introduce concepts about media literacy in a way that’s really applicable to the hours you might spend every day scrolling on TikTok. It’s not textbook-y at all. It uses real-life anecdotes that a lot of us can relate to. I used scripts that explain how to effectively disagree, for example, with a parent who doesn’t believe in gun control. Role playing and working through scripts can actually be more helpful than speaking in more abstract terms. We’re doing kids a disservice by leaving them out of the media literacy conversation.
I go into classrooms aware that some young people willfully don’t engage with the news much. There have been recent reports that Gen Z is moving away from Google and using TikTok for search, for example. When asked, some students will say that they don’t know what to search for. They don’t have to search. “TikTok knows me so well, it knows what to show me.”
I’m working with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in their K-12 education program, developing media literacy lesson plans and resources for teachers to go along with the book. Just over a dozen states now include media literacy in their curriculum, but I’m helping to develop a framework for media literacy, digital literacy, and critical thinking that that can be incorporated nationally. Teachers are hungry for content like this, and resources that will help facilitate their teaching.
You introduce the concept of “your brain on stories”—that is, the neuroscience behind what’s happening to our brains when we engage with a narrative. It’s something a lot of kids—and adults—don’t know about. Can you explain this idea?
Neuroscience teaches us about oxytocin release, neurons, empathy, and compassion as well as cognitive biases and the fact that stories are so powerful in permeating and dismantling them. When I have studied anti-science, t’s not based on hard data sets of millions of data points. It’s anecdotal, but it’s so compelling and memorable and emotionally triggering. Once you start unraveling that, you can start empowering people to spot red flags and think, “Hold on, I’m feeling really incensed right now. What is it about this tweet that makes me so angry?” When people know that being emotionally triggered is a red flag for misinformation, they can say, “I’m not going to retweet.”
The spread of false information and use of information warfare and propaganda are age-old problems. What the Fact? traces the origins of the American press to government propaganda. The earliest newspapers were the mouthpieces of the president and ruling party. It might feel worse now because the internet and social media can accelerate the spread of false information. But there is a way to develop mental immunity to this stuff and it doesn’t involve being a skeptic about everything. It involves very doable measures like having an open mind, asking questions, assigning a level of conviction to your beliefs, and being really open to challenging your beliefs.
Even though the problem can seem intractable, there are things within our grasp that each of us can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones, society as a whole. Disinformation is terrible. But we can hold that in one hand and in the other hand, reading books like this and having deep conversations can empower us.
Educators interested in resources and classroom visits (in-person or virtual) can visit the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting’s education website.
What the Fact? by Seema Yasmin. Simon & Schuster, $19.99 Sept. 20 ISBN 978-1-66590-003-4